Learning to Listen: the sound of the Classical Era

by Emily Reese, Minnesota Public Radio
August 11, 2014

St. Paul, Minn. — On today's Learning to Listen, you'll discover what music often sounded like in the Classical era.

The transition from the Baroque era to the Classical era began in the 1720s. The Classical era began its transition to the Romantic era around 1800.

The most famous Classical era composers were (Franz) Joseph Haydn, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Ludwig van Beethoven.

Simplicity and clarity reigned in the Classical era. Musical phrases became easier to distinguish from one another.

In the Classical Era, new forms of music started gaining ground. Words and terms like "symphony" and "string quartet" and "sonata" either took on new meaning, or grew into common musical documents.

The symphony in the Classical Era grew from a combination of Italian Baroque opera and other Baroque forms like the Trio Sonata.

Italian Baroque operas contained overtures, often called "sinfonias", which usually had a "fast-slow-fast" structure — up tempo, quicker music, followed by a slow section and finished with another up-tempo, fast section.

Giovanni Battista Sammartini is considered the Father of the Symphony, even though he didn't invent the form. Nearly all of Sammartini's 70-odd Symphonies have three movements, following the fast-slow-fast model.

In contrast, nearly all of Haydn's 104 symphonies have four movements, which became normal in the classical era.

One major difference between the Baroque Era and the Classical Era that followed? The texture.

If you describe the texture of Baroque music, you might use words like "thick" or "complicated."

In the Classical Era, music was less busy. Music wasn't necessarily less technical or difficult, but it sounded less technical and difficult.

Certain "forms" of music were quite popular in the Classical Era.

When composers in the Classical Era wrote music with multiple movements, the first movement was often in what's called "Sonata form".

At its simplest, a piece in Sonata form has two main melodies that get developed a bit before you hear both those melodies again.

Composers also started writing string quartets. A string quartet has two violins, a viola and a cello (no double bass).

Johann Sebastian Bach didn't write a string quartet. He wrote music that can be played by a quartet, but Bach didn't write specifically for that arrangement of instruments.

Joseph Haydn mastered and helped define the genre of the string quartet. His earliest quartets have three movements — the fast-slow-fast model; however, Haydn eventually wrote his string quartets with four movements — an opening movement in sonata form, a second movement in a slower tempo, a third movement in the form of a minuet, and a quicker tempo finale.

Later in the Classical era, Beethoven started replacing the third movement minuets with something called a scherzo. It's possible, but unusual, to find a piece of music called "scherzo" at the height of the Baroque, in the 17th century.

For Beethoven and Schubert, scherzos were common currency. Haydn and Mozart focused on writing a Minuet for the third movements of their string quartets and their symphonies.

By Beethoven's time the polite dance of the Minuet was out, the impertinent musical joke, the "scherzo", was in.

By the middle of the 18th century, the fortepiano replaced the harpsichord as the main keyboard instrument in use. It was a technological breakthrough. Unlike the harpsichord, the fortepiano boasted dynamics. It could play loud or soft, as the name suggests.

Composers like Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Clementi wrote extensively for the piano, including piano concertos, piano sonatas, piano duets — trios, quartets, quintets — the piano was everywhere in the classical era, nearly to the extent that the harpsichord was ubiquitous in the Baroque era. Even Bach had a brief experience with the piano at the end of his life.

The Piano Concerto became very popular in the Classical era, and continues to be popular today.

In the Classical era, orchestras were smaller than they would become in the Romantic era.

Many instruments were still in a state of transition throughout the classical era. By the time Beethoven died in 1827, the piano was larger and louder than it had been when Haydn and Mozart first began writing for it.

Brass instruments hadn't reached their full potential — there was no tuba yet; trumpets were only just getting valves.

Percussion sections weren't that large, and instruments like snare drum and cymbals were almost exclusively used to evoke an exotic "Turkish" sound.

Orchestras in the Classical Era only had about 25 players. In the Romantic Era, that would triple.

Program Playlist

Luigi Boccherini
Quintet No. 5: Menuet
Isaac Stern, Yo-Yo Ma, etc
Sony 53983

Johann Sebastian Bach
English Suite No. 4, 3rd movement
Angela Hewitt, piano
Hyperion 67451

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Piano Sonata No. 18 K 576
Mitsuko Uchida, piano
Philips 422517

Alessandro Scarlatti
Overture to Giardino di Rose
John Wallace, cond
The Philharmonia
Nimbus 7012
Giovanni Battista Sammartini
Symphony in F
Daniele Ferrari, cond.
I Giovani di Nuova Cameristica (ensemble)
Nuova Era 7206

Francesco Geminiani
Concerto Grosso No. 3
Christopher Hogwood, cond
The Academy of Ancient Music
L'Oiseau-Lyre 417522

Johann Sebastian Bach
English Suite No. 1, 2nd movement
Angela Hewitt, piano
Hyperion 67451

Franz Joseph Haydn
Symphony No. 38, 3rd movement
Christopher Hogwood, cond
The Academy of Ancient Music
L'Oiseau-Lyre 433012

Franz Joseph Haydn
String Quartet No. 66 "Lobkowitz"
Emerson String Quartet
DG 471327

Franz Joseph Haydn
Symphony No. 38, 3rd movement
Christopher Hogwood, cond
The Academy of Ancient Music
L'Oiseau-Lyre 433012

Ludwig van Beethoven
String Quartet No. 7, "Razumovsky"
Emerson String Quartet
DG 453764

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Piano Concerto No. 4, K 41
Murray Perahia, piano (also conductor)
English Chamber Orchestra
Sony 41217

Johann Stamitz
Symphony in B-flat major
Donald Armstrong, cond
New Zealand Chamber Orchestra
Naxos 553194

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